Tisa: A Teacher’s Experience in PNG 1962–75 by Roy Kirkby (Part 1)
Like so many expatriates, I was attracted to Papua New Guinea long before I arrived there. My interest began in England as a high school student in the late 1940s through a world map, which showed the mainland as partly unexplored; this stimulated in me a desire to visit. Later, that fascination was expanded with a desire not only to go there but to stay and work. In 1960, when I embarked on an around-the-world experience, the Arctic Circle and New Guinea were on the top of my list. It took until 1962 on my travels via Canada and Australia to get there.
I got to New Guinea by being accepted on the 3rd E Course in Rabaul. As for all who were recruited, it was in an idyllic setting. The six-month course itself was most interesting. It combined the basic requirements of a NSW Teacher’s Certificate with the practicalities of teaching in rural areas of the country, and with an emphasis on teaching English as a second language (TESL).
Even more interesting was the mix of lecturers, some with little or no experience of the country and others—the Territorians—who had lived and worked with the people in a range of settings for many years. What I remembered and found useful I got from the Territorians, in particular from Bert Jones, the principal of the college. The most memorable piece of advice was ‘When you are out alone in a bush school, don’t drink or go with local women and work seven days a week.’ That advice was to be most helpful in my first years.
Particularly enjoyable were the practice teaching activities at village schools around Rabaul, where we found the children to be enthusiastic and keen to learn.
At the conclusion of the E Course, I got my wish for a posting to the Western Highlands District, where there was still potentially unexplored territory, or at least areas that had had little or no contact with expatriates.
On arrival in the weekly single-engined Otter flight, I was greeted by kiap, Bill Biscoe, his wife Roseanne, medical assistant Geoff Bentley and his wife, Eve. So initially I was not alone and for a few short months I very much enjoyed their company and their initiation of me into life on an outstation, and most importantly the way of life of the local Enga people.
I was, of course, very keen to settle in to my nice new E Course donga, a little embarrassingly standing out against the local materials’ classrooms and local teacher’s house.
The school had been run by Misikarem, a Tolai teacher who had done a terrific job. For two years he had been alone, away from his fellow islands’ people in a possible alien culture, where he could be the subject of a payback if a highlander had been assaulted on the coast. He had very few resources in the school, but managed to run it as a one-teacher school, with half the students as boarders so with the added responsibility of their wellbeing. In a way, I was a reward for his efforts and I didn’t want to let him down.
We tried to move fast. I managed, through District Inspector Tas Hammersley, to get some unassembled desks flown in, and a fellow teacher at Wabag cut one of his blackboards in half so I could have one to start a new preparatory class.
Through Geoff Bentley, the opportunity to raise some money arose, since we had no cash and all purchases of food for boarders was done with salt—the currency of exchange along with tobacco. It came in the form of growing peanuts to sell to the Wabag hospital to use as a supplement for sick pregnant women for which there was some cash available.
For the peanut project, every student in the school was involved, which wasn’t hard since lessons were only from 8 am to 12.30 pm, and after lunch it was gardening and cleaning around the school until 3 pm. After that, students who might live an hour or more’s walk away would have time to walk home, while boarders could engage in some more gardening for extra food if they wished.
Boarders were an interesting challenge. On the one hand, we had to have gardens for them to grow food that was supplemented by a salt ration, so we could purchase kau kau (sweet potatoes) from local people. Additionally, from the government, they received one tin of meat or fish per student per week. On the other hand, part of my brief was to get more students into the school from the outlying areas of the sub-district. These would be some hours, even days, walk away. Some present boarders were from these areas, having been gathered by a kiap on patrol previously. He had brought in a few boys with one or two destined for enrolment at the school, and the others for training on the patrol post for such jobs as interpreters. I collected some new ones on a couple of patrols with the kiap, but I then had an additional job at term holidays to walk some home and then collect them for the next term. The reason for that was the danger of them being killed while going through traditional enemy territory, but they would be left alone if with a European. So that was sometimes my term holiday!
It was in these exciting early months that the need for a meaningful goal became more pressing. I had come to PNG as a missionary, not a religious one, but one with a strong belief in Western education and ways of life. I believed the most worthwhile content should be the 3Rs in English and learning about the capitalist way of economic life. I had fuzzy ideas about democracy, self-reliance and personal ambition. I believed we should strive towards valuing the individual as much if not more than the group. I was strong in my belief and about valuing both genders equally, about being not physically aggressive and valuing reason over physical might.
As noted earlier, I recognised the need to combine the traditional way of life in making schoolwork only in the morning, and outdoor work including gardening for self-reliance. We also took on cultural studies such as weaving, building, weapons making, dance and storytelling.
However, my Western approach did not always work as expected. An early example was when local clan groups were supposed to come and clean around the school, mainly cutting grass, once a week. It started well but they got very slack. I tried to reason and got nowhere. One day, as they sat under a tree when they should have been working, I went towards them with a big stick pretending I would hit someone if they did not get to work. I accidentally hit an old man too weak to get up and away, to great laughter from the rest of the group. I was mortified but quickly warned by my local servant not to help the poor old man. From that point on, I gained a reputation as a good but hard man who could not be physically challenged—a reputation I did not want.
Making spears and bows and arrows added excitement to the potential riot I had to break up when I introduced the idea of games in the form of korfball—a mixed non-contact ball-handling sport a little like netball, as being competition without direct physical aggression.
Cultural activities became a particularly successful part of school learning, when at the end of the school year the students arranged to have a sing-sing. A pig was presented by the kiap so they could have a mumu and follow with singing and dancing.
At a broader community level, a huge sing-sing was arranged at Kompiam for clans from around the district at New Year. It was a great success with no disputes or fighting.
With the new year, my interests and involvement were forced to expand. Within weeks, both the kiap and the medical assistant were posted to other centres and I, as was the custom with the government at the time when there was only one expatriate there, was left in charge of everything. I was not only the teacher in charge of the school, but also in charge of the station and hospital. I had become masta bilong al. This was all in theory if not in practice, for I had to keep in daily contact with the powers that be in Wabag. But, as was the practice, since there were no problems, I was left alone for some months.
Naturally, I ran the Kompiam part of the sub-district from my classroom, utilising the excellent Enga communication system—there were regular news messages sent from hill to hill by voice, and I could get immediate interpretation from the boys in my class. For anything else, a daily visit to the station office and hospital sufficed. Naturally, the school benefited from the extra help around the school provided by the kalabus (prisoners).
However, in effect the person who ran the station and kept everyone on track was Sergeant Wengi. He was a quiet, reserved giant of a man in the sense of the respect he had from everyone. He ‘saved my bacon’ on many occasions, and I am sure he did the same for many other expatriates, including the kiaps under whom he served his country. I had two of his children in my class; they were bright little buttons, strong in character like their father and their mother.
One of my most privileged memories was of my departure from Kompiam on being posted to Jimi River. The Otter aircraft was there to take me and my gear to Tabibuga. Everyone was there to say goodbye and Wengi, who always quietly stood in the background, came forward. He shook my hand and thanked me for my time there and wished me well for the Jimi, in Pidgin of course. I had never seen him make such a gesture.